Applying the Hollywood Formula to RPG Storylines
By Brad Allen
I’ve been GMing for many years but only recently tried to enhance my pacing and story-writing skills. For a long time my games suffered from frequent lulls and anti-climaxes, but no longer.
A year or so ago, I did some research on plot structure and came across a web site, Michael Hauge’s Screenplay Mastery.
I thought to myself, could I apply the Hollywood formula to RPG storylines?
I decided to use Hauge’s outline to write a storyline for a Hollow Earth Expedition scenario. And guess what? It was a huge success! With the proper prep, I achieved the exciting breakneck pacing you get from an action-adventure Hollywood movie.
So now when I come up with that cool idea for a scenario, I apply the Hollywood formula (detailed below). I’ve run six scenarios in different game systems (D20 Modern, Hollow Earth Expedition, Savage Worlds Super Heroes) using this formula and my players have enjoyed the exciting pacing. They are often surprised by how much happens in one four hour session (we play one night a week).
Once I have the basic idea (my scenarios are usually 5-8 sessions long), I plug it into the following outline with three acts and five turning points:
- Set Up (10% of scenario, 1/2 to 1 session)
- Ends with turning point #1 – The Opportunity
- New Situation (15% of scenario, 1/2 to 1 session)
- Ends with turning point #2 – The Change of Plans
- Progress (25% of scenario, 1-2 sessions)
- Ends with turning point #3 – Point of No Return
- Complications & Higher Stakes (25% of scenario, 1-2 sessions)
- Ends with turning point #4 – The Major Setback
- Final Push(15% of scenario, 1 session)
- Ends with turning point #5 – The Climax
- Aftermath (10% of scenario, 1/2 to 1 session)
Stage I: The Set Up
During this stage, I introduce all the player characters and we learn what they’ve been up to. Individual PC subplots are role-played out, and the players are whisked away from the everyday and drawn into the game setting.
At the end of stage one, we reach turning point #1 – The Opportunity. This is where I present the PCs with a plot hook to pursue. However, this is not the main goal of the scenario. It only brings them to The New Situation.
Stage II: The New Situation
This is often a new location in the game setting. Depending on the projected length of the scenario, it can take all of session 2, or the latter half of session 1.
In “The New Situation”, the PCs go to the new place where they interact with some NPCs and fight some minor baddies.
At the end of the New Situation there is turning point #2 – The Change of Plans. This is where I reveal the main goal of the scenario with a clearly defined end point (stop the evil plan, get the dingus, save the kidnapped person).
Once the goal of the PCs is clear, the players quickly jump into the third stage: Progress.
Stage III: Progress
During this stage of the scenario, the PCs uncover clues and start to work toward the scenario’s main goal.
At this point, I always introduce a couple of obstacles (1-2 combat or role-playing obstacles) which can take up 1-2 sessions depending on the scenario’s projected length.
I make sure the PCs are able to overcome most obstacles during this stage, which brings them to turning point #3 – The Point of No Return.
Up to this point, the PCs had the option of going back to what they were doing in the Set Up. But now the players realize they must fully commit to the goal of the scenario.
Of course, the PCs press on and this is where the shit starts to really hit the fan as they enter Complications & Higher Stakes.
Stage IV: Complications & Higher Stakes (1-2 game sessions)
This is where I start throwing everything I can at the PCs. Everything is harder and more and more things get in the PCs’ way.
Plus, I try to raise the stakes making the consequences more dire if the PCs fail to reach the goal.
This is also where I’ve found the game starts going off script and I start winging it as a GM.
The players usually start doing things to reach the goal that I haven’t thought of. Still, I always think of a few ways for the players to reach the goal and defeat the baddies.
This is where I throw in the really tough combats too (where the PCs can die). As the PCs have to deal with more and more challenges, it all reaches a boiling point, turning point #4 – the Major Setback.
At the Major Setback, I try to make something happen to the PCs to make it seem all is lost and failure is certain.
Now in Hollywood, it’s easy to have the Major Setback. It’s just written into the script at the 75% mark, no matter what the movie. It’s always there (just watch any movie and figure out the 75% mark and voila, there it is, EVERY TIME).
But RPGs aren’t scripted and by this point in the scenario, my PCs are usually doing all sorts of crazy and unpredictable stuff. But I try to throw something in at the 75% point where it seems certain the PCs are going to fail or at least have a hard time.
Of course, the PCs overcome this obstacle to enter The Final Push.
Stage V: The Final Push (1 game session)
After pushing past the Major Setback, the PCs have only one option, a do-or-die effort to save the world, defeat the baddies, get the girl.
During this stage, the pace in my game gets ridiculously fast, and the conflict is intense. I run action-adventure genres (Super Heroes, Hollow Earth Expedition) and there is constant action during this session, usually for the entire session (not always combat, but constant action, death-defying feats, piloting vehicles through hazes of gunfire, explosions and the like).
This all builds until turning point #5 – the Climax, where the PCs defeat the baddies once and for all and accomplish the goal of the scenario.
After all the dust has settled, I move onto the Aftermath.
Stage VI: The Aftermath (1/2 to 1 game session)
This stage might take a whole session following the session dedicated to the Final Push. Or it might take just an hour at the end of the scenario.
During this time we see the PCs living their lives after achieving the goal. A few subplots may be handled, especially if the main plot affected any ongoing individual PC subplots. This is also a great place to plant the seed for the next scenario and gets players excited for the next time you GM.
After many years of GMing with no sense of plot structure, I’ve found this Hollywood formula to work very well. It keeps the pace moving and helps me with writing block when I’m trying to figure out what happens next as I write down scenarios.
I’ve found I am able to somewhat script the first half of a scenario, and then sort of ad lib the second half to a large extent, with the complications being reactions to the PCs actions (I only detail locations, baddies actions/reactions, and time-based events at this point).
I’ve also found that the Hollywood formula works for any length of scenario. I recently applied the Hollywood formula to a three session adventure, and have applied the formula to a long over-arching campaign where each scenario is a stage in the story arc.
One of my campaigns, for Hollow Earth Expedition, consists of eight scenarios that are each 5-8 game session in length. For example, the first scenario of the campaign was just The Setup.